The Australian Open has divided the country. But could it save sport?

Jan 28, 2021 • 17m 02s

While thousands of Australians are still stranded overseas, 1,200 tennis players, officials and support staff have flown into Melbourne to take part in the Australian Open. Today, Ben Rothenberg on the debate over the decision to go ahead with the tournament, and what it could mean for the future of global sports.



The Australian Open has divided the country. But could it save sport?

384 • Jan 28, 2021

The Australian Open has divided the country. But could it save sport?

[Theme music starts]


From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

While international borders remain closed and thousands of Australians are still stranded overseas, twelve hundred tennis players, officials and support staff have flown into Melbourne to take part in the Australian Open.

The players are undertaking a forced, two-week quarantine but the different facilities offered to them, based on their ranking and profile, have raised doubts about how fair the tournament will be.

Today, journalist Ben Rothenberg on the debate over the decision to go ahead with the Australian Open, and what it could mean for the future of global sports.

[Theme music ends]


Ben, the pandemic has transformed the world of professional sports, including tennis. So let's talk about the impact of the spread of the virus over the last year. In terms of the big tournaments, how have players had to adapt?


Just like almost everything else in the world, the tennis tours have been dramatically, profoundly impacted by the pandemic, starting in early March, when the big tournament in Indian Wells, California, was cancelled just the night before it was set to begin.

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #1:

“A major California tennis tournament is just the latest to cancel due to Coronavirus concerns.”

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #2:

“And we are here in front of the Indian Wells tennis garden where the BNP Paribas Open is supposed to be held…”


And once that cancelled, it really quickly snowballed. You know, later that week, the NBA season...

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #3:

“The NBA has made the decision, they have just announced that they are suspending play finishing after tonight's game…”


All sorts of things started grinding to a halt.

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #4:

“Augusta National, home of the Masters, postponing the prestigious golf tournament...”

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #5:

“This afternoon the NCAA announced that its men's and women's basketball tournaments have been cancelled...”

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #6:

“The Boston Marathon scheduled for April, postponed until September...”

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #7:

“This morning, NASCAR releasing a statement that the events this weekend will be postponed until honestly, they're not sure when…”


Most notably the biggest domino to fall of all was Wimbledon.

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #8:

“Breaking news - and it is not unexpected - and it is that Wimbledon is now cancelled…”


The Grand Slam event in England annually, a very prestigious historic event was cancelled relatively early on.
And there was one infamous aborted attempt by tennis players to try to start their own tour in defiance of maybe the pandemic realities.

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #9:

“Grigor Dimitrov, Warner, George and Viktor Troicki, who have all tested positive after playing Djokovic’s Adria tour…”


The Adria tour, which was an event in the Balkans in several different cities there, started by Novak Djokovic, the top ranked player started holding events that had no social distancing protocols whatsoever to speak of...

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #10:

“The tournament in Serbia and Croatia was organised by Djokovic, his brother Georgio, who promised it would be a safe event…”


...and that quickly turned into a super spreader event that gained infamy in the world as sort of being irresponsible behaviour.

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #10:

“And now the world number one has become the fourth player at the tournament to contract Covid-19.”


The tours really didn't get back underway meaningfully until August of last year and the ramping up for the U.S. Open, which wound up being held but completely closed to the public, no fans, in sort of a bubble environment, because there still was a decent amount of covid, even if not at its peak in New York, in the United States, and a lot of players opted out of this tournament.

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #11:

“Rafael Nadal, as somebody who is the current world number one player, and Simona Halep, the current number two player…”


So it's just been very different - everything kind of has an asterisk attached to use this sort of sports stats debate about this. It hasn't felt totally back to normal yet, and I'm not sure exactly when that will happen. Maybe this Australian Open represents that, but it's been very different, for sure.


And so the Australian Open, it's really the first serious attempt to restart international tennis. And throughout the year, it wasn't really clear, as you say, whether it would take place given the lockdown that we had here in Melbourne and the international border closures. But it is scheduled to kick off in a couple of weeks. So can you tell me how significant the Australian Open is for showing how professional sports can operate?


Yeah, it's a very significant attempt and a very significant model, because I think in New York, the bubble was trying to keep the tennis players safe from the outside world, right? It was sealing off the outside so the players wouldn't get infected from outside contaminants, whereas here it's kind of completely flipped. The players are the ones who are being put through this essentially purifying system of the quarantine for 14 days so they don't infect the public, because Australia's covid numbers are so much better than pretty much anywhere else in the world, certainly where the other grand slam events are in the U.S. and in France and in the U.K.. So this is a big deal that the Australian Open is trying this much more time intensive model of having the players get here two weeks early, demanding this.

But then once that all finishes, it should be able to be a pretty business as normal type tournament. There will be fans in attendance, maybe not as many as before, but still, you know, thousands and thousands of fans at each session, players able to move freely about the city and go to restaurants, whatever else they might like once they're cleared through the quarantine protocol.

So it really is an ambitious undertaking and it's a lot for, you know, a relatively short part of the season, it's only going to be playing tournaments in Melbourne for about three weeks. And so it's a lot of work for a relatively short amount of tennis. But the grand slams are huge events and you see by how many top players did make the choice to come to Australia, that for the vast, vast majority of them, they decided it's worth it.


So, Ben, the tennis players who arrived in Australia for the open, what were they expecting and what actually, what was the reality of what they got when they arrived?


So the tennis players had been led to expect that they would be able to leave their hotel rooms for five hours a day for training, for fitness, at the Melbourne Park Centre. And then once a few positive tests started popping up on the flights into Australia, the charter flights, which Tennis Australia had arranged for the players...

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #12:

“Well 72 Australian Open players are waking up in quarantine this morning banned from daily training, after another Covid case was found aboard a charter flight…”


...the crackdown's became even harsher on the players - they weren't allowed to leave the room at all for 14 days, stuck in their 24 hours. And I think maybe Tennis Australia also hadn't done enough making them aware of just what those risks were, that really things could go pretty haywire quickly with just a handful of positive tests on a given flight.

Archival Tape -- News reporter #1:

”It’s like you’re in prison, eh?”

Archival Tape -- Roberto Bautista Agut:

“It’s the same. It’s the same.”

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #13:

“Spainiard Roberto Bautista Agut directed his anger at the Victorian government.”

Archival Tape -- Roberto Bautista Agut:

“’s a completely disaster, because of that, because the control…”


I think they felt a bit caught off guard and a bit betrayed maybe by this, a lot of them who hadn't necessarily read the materials as thoroughly or just sort of glanced over that part of it. And I think it really hurts them both physically and also just psychologically knowing that you're not going to be able to maybe train as much as some of your other peers can if the person in the room next to you wasn't on one of these compromised flights, but you were. And then you have to play against him or her in the first round, you're going to feel massively disadvantaged.

And so I think a lot of them probably already feel like they're losing even before they take the court. And that can be a tough thing for them to overcome.


Righ. And so can you tell me more about the inequality between players that is arising as a result of this situation? Because it sounds like some players have been able to train when others haven’t, and there is a fair bit of disparity in their experiences since they arrived in Australia.


Yes, there's a few different sort of itineraries that players would have gotten here. Some of them were set from the beginning, Tennis Australia routed a handful, a small handful of the very top players, the biggest stars in the game, to South Australia, to Adelaide, where they were going to have a separate quarantining facility, where they had more people allowed, more spacious amenities, they have kitchens and things in their apartments they're staying in or their suites they're staying in...

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #14:

“As far as quarantine goes, this is about as good as it gets. Today, world number one Novak Djokovic made the most of a break from his hotel room to train at Memorial Drive…”


...and they're having a much more relaxed, hospitable time of things.

Archival Tape -- News Presenter #14:

“All seven stars here, including grand-slam champion Serena Williams, can hit the courts daily under police escort…”


This is just the top players, so on the men's side it's only Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Dominic Team, then the practise partner they brought on the women's side. It's Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Simona Halep. So it really seems to be advantaging just the star players. And Craig Tiley, who's determined director for the Australian Open, admitted as much just saying, you know, if you're a star or top player, you sort of earned preferential treatment and that's how it's going to be.

Archival Tape -- Craig Tiley:

“The majority of players have been really good, and there’s some that have been upset. And we get it, because they are in a position that they’re not used to, having to be in their rooms, and getting ready for a grand slam. This is not what they would have expected…”


You know, separate states. And a whole 700 kilometres between them has made this manifestly a lot more visible in a way that I think a lot of players who are in Melbourne, not being able to get outside as regularly, especially the ones who are now in this unexpectedly tough 14 day hard quarantine, I think they feel even more hard done by with the Adelaide situation they might have otherwise.


We'll be back in a moment.



Ben, you've outlined how this year's Australian Open is an attempt to sort of bypass covid-19 and create a tournament that works, but the rules that have been put in place have led to an uneven playing field. And obviously having an even playing field is fundamental to any sport. So can you talk to me a bit about that historically, how that has been the case in tennis?


Yeah, for sure. I mean, tennis, like every sport, I think, tries to be as fair as it can be. And, you know, each player has the same ball as they play with. Each player gets to serve the same number of times and they switch sides of the court every two games to make sure there's no advantages for wind or sun glare or whatever it might be. But, you know, it is still a world where once you reach the top, it's in some ways cushier up there. Obviously, there's more pressure and people are gunning for you and you have a target on your back and things like that.

But it can be a pretty cushy place when you have a star treatment and have the fans on your side in the tournament on your side and sponsors, and you can afford, you know, physiotherapists and mental coach and masseurs and, you know, private chefs, some players who travel with at various times, you know, then you play somebody who's ranked 150th in the world who can't even afford to pay a coach because players have to pay their own coaches salaries and tennis unlike, you know, a team sport. And I think a lot of ways this Australian Open is just putting a further spotlight on those disparities.


So is what we're seeing now at the Australian Open a reflection of this longer term trend where rich players get preferential treatment?


I think so, yeah. And it certainly has not just come at the Australian Open. It's happened before. US Open last year, a bunch of the top players were allowed to stay at private houses near the tournament outside of the sort of bubble. If they had the resources to pay for their own, you know, 24 hour security guard and sort of monitor their movements and things like that. So it was a very exclusive group of high earning players who were able to make that decision.

And it did have a big competitive advantage for them, in the end. Those were players who did well at the tournament, who were the ones who were able to sort of pay for that advantage of peace and quiet and privacy, those sorts of things, those sorts of amenities, luxuries the players can invest themselves in and really do time and time out, show themselves on the court and who wins and who loses.

And, you know, in tennis, it's interesting. In sports, historically, people love the underdog a lot of times, but in tennis, that's not always the case. People love him - he's not playing this year's tournament - but Roger Federer, who's won, you know, so many times in 20 grand slam titles, people just root for him to, you know, be at his best and to dominate whoever he is across from and cheer that on.

And it really is a star driven sport in tennis. And I think it's structured that way. You know, there's huge, huge breakout stars that come out of the sport. And if you're somebody who's even amazingly world class, like, I don't know, number 15 in the world, the 15th best in the world of what you do, you might be relatively anonymous in the eyes of most semi-casual tennis fans. It really is a sport with massive, massive differences between the haves and the have nots.


And there's no doubt that sports administrators are watching how this plays out. What lessons do you think that they will learn? Do you think that this is being seen as a model that has worked and could influence how something like the Olympics can operate in this climate? Or do you think that it's being seen as perhaps too messy and too complicated?


I think it's being seen as a lot, because Tennis Australia and the Victorian government, whatever to the extent that their funding is attached to one another, really has shelled out an unbelievable amount of money to do this, paying for all the players to have their two week quarantines, paying for all these charter flights around the world to Melbourne, and it's not, those are not short flights either that you're paying for here with these nearly empty planes bringing people, 17 different flights say they paid for coming to Melbourne, staggered across the group.

So that's very tough to replicate, but there is a lot of attention being paid by sports administrators to how the Australian Open goes, because it really is probably the most ambitious undertaking of any international sporting event so far since the pandemic began. And I think one of the groups that’s watching this most closely would be the Tokyo Olympics administrators, who delayed their event from previously being scheduled for 2020 to 2021, starting in July of 2021. And they’re gonna be watching the Australian Open very closely, but they're already, I think, pessimistic.

If it took an Australian level of money and time and commitment to do the Olympics, which is a vastly larger event with so many different sports and probably 10 times more people involved, conservatively, I'm not sure they would think it was worth it. I'm not sure they think they could pull it off. And time will tell. I mean, they may feel very differently about the Australian Open once it's done and seen as a success and people enjoyed actually watching the tennis.

But if anything happens to the Melbourne community in the population that is at all traceable to the tennis, then I would have to think they would shut it down very quickly and that it would be seen as a massive mistake to have ever even thought it was possible. So the risk is absolutely there. And the reward at best is a good tennis tournament, which is...I love tennis, but it seems relatively out of balance when you're talking about how much more Covid spread would disrupt Melbourne as a community.


Ben, thank you so much for your time today.


Thanks for having me.



Also in the news today...

The NSW government has announced a major easing of restrictions across the state, with household gatherings increased to a maximum of 30 people.

Masks will remain mandatory for public transport and places of worship, while they are recommended in retail settings.

And the federal government has been ordered to pay compensation to more than 1000 asylum seekers after accidentally leaking their personal information.

The Australian Information and Privacy Commissioner found that the name, date of birth, citizenship and boat arrival details of asylum seekers was published online in 2014.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

While thousands of Australians are still stranded overseas, 1,200 tennis players, officials and support staff have flown into Melbourne to take part in the Australian Open. Today, Ben Rothenberg on the debate over the decision to go ahead with the tournament, and what it could mean for the future of global sports.

Guest: Journalist and writer for The Saturday Paper Ben Rothenberg.

Background reading:

The inequalities of grand slam tennis in The Saturday Paper

Listen and subscribe in your favourite podcast app (it's free).

Apple podcasts Google podcasts Listen on Spotify


7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Michelle Macklem, and Cinnamon Nippard.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

More episodes from Ben Rothenberg


auspol covid19 coronavirus economy stimulus morrison

Subscribe to hear every episode in your favourite podcast app:
Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify

384: The Australian Open has divided the country. But could it save sport?